Welsh Mythology

Geoffrey Chaucer: Canterbury tale of Sir Thopas
The Mabinogion: Culhwch and Olwen

14th century, Middle Welsh, National Library of Wales

Culhwch approaches the giant's fortress and meets with a shepherd whose dog is the size of a fully-grown horse.

'Geoffrey Chaucer wasn’t Welsh,' said Miranda. 'And he was lampooning contemporary, fourteenth century romance when he wrote the Canterbury Tale of Sir Thopas. All the same, he knew the way to seek out a giant. He sends Sir Thopas galloping through a wood like a maniac, there may have been no path – no way of avoiding the trees and overhanging branches. And then, after he comes to grief, he finds himself in elfland and sees the giant Sir Oliphant ahead of him. Giants are always found in an Otherworld. Irish heroes find them beyond a magic mist...'

'...and Scandinavian heroes are taken across water to giantland in a boat or through a mist,' interrupted Quintin, 'or carried there by eagles and vultures. Ever been carried by a vulture? Dead meat!'

'But then, let's not miss the most obvious thing of all, though,' replied Miranda.

'Which is?'

'To a newborn baby, an adult will appear as a giant.' Miranda turned to her essay.

'Evidence for this comes from the Welsh Mabinogion tale How Culhwch won Olwen. Handed down to us in a fourteenth century manuscript, the story in its final form dates to the very late eleventh century and portrays Arthur in his original mythological role, as shown by the earliest Welsh writings, as a protector of Britain from Otherworldly threats. Young Culhwch, who is King Arthur’s cousin and who later enlists King Arthur’s help in the pursuit of an impossible quest, sets out to find the daughter of Chief Giant Ysbaddaden with the intention of marrying her. Culhwch approaches the giant’s fortress and meets with a shepherd whose dog is larger than a nine-year-old stallion. The shepherd receives the gift of a ring from Culhwch, which does not fit the man’s finger so he takes it home to his wife.

'"How did you come by this ring?” she asks.

'“As I was looking for food along the seashore,” he replies. “I saw a body drifting in with the waves. It was a very handsome body and there was a ring on its finger.”

'"The sea takes jewellery from the fingers of dead men. Where is the body?"

'“Wife, it will not be long before you see the owner of that body. He is Culhwch son of Kilydd.”'

'His wife is saying that he didn't get the ring from a dead body,' objected Quintin.

'Then why mention it?' retorted Miranda. 'Unless, in order to enter the land of giants, Culhwch would have been expected to have arrived as a body drifting in with the waves?'

Story fragment recounted from: Gantz, Jeffrey, 1976. The Mabinogion. Translated from Middle Welsh with an introduction. Penguin Books Limited. How Culhwch Won Olwen, p 134–76.


Weird Tales—discussion.

Circle Line, Tower Hill


Chaucer's Canterbury Tale of Sir Thopas – eChaucer, original and translation

Mabinogion – Wikipedia

Culhwch and Olwen – Wikipedia

Culhwch and Olwen – Modern English translation by Lady Charlotte Guest, edited by Mary Jones




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